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On the recommendation of an esteemed Finnish member of our forum, I decided to ask how one would translate "night owl" into Latin.

night owl (noun)

a person who keeps late hours at night

I first checked Whitaker's words, and the only general word it gives for "owl" is cicuma, -ae. Unsurprisingly, there was no entry for "night owl" per se.

Thus my best guess would be phrases like "cicuma noctis" or "cicuma nocturna". But I also feel there is a good chance that this concept existed in ancient Rome, and had its own word or phrase.

Are there any attested examples of the concept of a "night owl"? If so, what word(s) did the author use? If not, what word(s) would you use?

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    Actually, Varro does mention a "night owl" (as in the bird), the noctua, which got its name "quod noctu canit et vigilat / because it sings 'noctu' ('at night') and stays up overnight". Which doesn't answer your question about the idiom but I thought it was a lovely piece of Latin onomatopoeic etymology :) (On the Latin language, 5.11.76) – Penelope Oct 5 '17 at 4:55
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    @Penelope That could have been a good answer! – C. M. Weimer Oct 5 '17 at 17:29
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    @Penelope That would make a nice answer! It is not unreasonable to use the name of an animal to describe a person with similar behavior, and that one fits so well. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 5 '17 at 20:56
  • Thanks for the feedback but I can't find anywhere that noctua was ever applied to a person to describe their habits so I really don't think it answers the question, especially when "attested examples of the concept" were asked for. On another note, it's great to see how many views this question is getting! – Penelope Oct 6 '17 at 6:18
  • Changed my mind - see below :) – Penelope Nov 17 '18 at 10:58
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The verb lucubrare means (OLD definition 1) 'To work by lamplight (i.e. late at night), "burn the midnight oil."' For example, Pliny uses this verb in letter 3.5 to talk about his uncle's work/study habits:

sed erat acre ingenium, incredibile stadium, summa vigilantia. lucubrare Vulcanalibus incipiebat non auspicandi causa sed studendi statim a nocte multa, hieme vero ab hora septima vel cum tardissime octava, saepe sexta.

Emphasis added

There are several words derived from this verb: lucubratio, lucubratiuncula, and lucubratorius. Although lucubrator ('a person who works, studies, etc. late at night') isn't one of these, it's easy enough to derive it.

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Seneca is your man. In Ep 122 he uses the word lychnobius: one who lives by lamplight.

I'll quote the passage in full, because it's so great.

Pedonem Albinovanum narrantem audieramus (erat autem fabulator elegantissimus) habitasse se supra domum Sex. Papini. Is erat ex hac turba lucifugarum. 'Audio' inquit 'circa horam tertiam noctis flagellorum sonum. Quaero quid faciat: dicitur rationes accipere. Audio circa horam sextam noctis clamorem concitatum. Quaero quid sit: dicitur vocem exercere. Quaero circa horam octavam noctis quid sibi ille sonus rotarum velit: gestari dicitur. Circa lucem discurritur, pueri vocantur, cellarii, coqui tumultuantur. Quaero quid sit: dicitur mulsum et halicam poposcisse, a balneo exisse. "Excedebat" inquit "huius diem cena." Minime; valde enim frugaliter vivebat; nihil consumebat nisi noctem.' Itaque Pedo dicentibus illum quibusdam avarum et sordidum 'vos' inquit 'illum et lychnobium dicetis'.

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I suggest the word nocticola, which literally means "night-dweller". The entry in Lewis and Short describes it as "fond of the night" and gives one use example.

Unfortunately the word seems to be rare and I could not find any classical attestations. However, it is a very natural derivative — just like Ovid's monticola — so I have no doubt the Romans of the classical Latin would have no problem with the word. It just happens to be a "not-even-hapax" legomenon, so to say.

Perhaps there are other options out there as well. I would certainly like to learn more words to describe my sleep cycle…

  • Gratias! I'm glad you posted this answer because indeed, nocticola is a natural choice, and the natural choices are good to know. It's also a cool example (along with monticola) of how the Romans would use compound words. – ktm5124 Oct 4 '17 at 18:24
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Varro does mention a "night owl" (as in the bird), the noctua, which got its name:

quod noctu canit et vigilat

because it sings 'noctu' ('at night') and stays up overnight

On the Latin Language, 5.11.76

Unfortunately, I can't find anywhere that noctua was ever applied to a person to describe their habits.

  • As to the fact that this word was never applied to persons, I don't think that need be an insurmountable obstacle. You'd just have to do what, e.g., Pliny the Younger would do, and add something like quasi or quaedam to soften the expression/make it metaphorical. – cnread Dec 7 '18 at 23:38

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